Monday, May 16, 2011

Shamelessly in Love With Sabra Hummus

I assumed it was obvious, but people seem to want me to say flat out that this trip was paid for by Sabra. So there you have it: they flew me down, they paid for my hotel, and they paid for my food. As part of the Tastemakers Panel, I agreed to blog about the trip, to develop hummus-based recipes, and more. So deal with it.

Close your eyes. Imagine taking a bath in garlic. Imagine the smell of spices swirling around you. Imagine feeling the entire Mediterranean world having a gigantic party in your nose, dancing on your tastebuds.

Open your eyes. And? You're standing in the Sabra hummus factory in Chesterfield County, Va! Okay, so you aren't standing there, but you're standing there, vicariously, through me.

The final group that attended was Liz, Diane, Linda, Kristin, and Renee!
As a member of the 2011 Sabra Tastemakers Panel, I schlepped with five other ladies from the group to an amazing (non-kosher, unfortunately) restaurant called Acacia last Tuesday, stayed in an amazing room at a Residence Inn (where I stayed up until 2 a.m. watching חיים יקרים, even though I had to wake up at 7 something a.m.), and took a tour of culinary delights. The goal of the trip? To give some bloggers a behind-the-scenes view of the factory, a chance to taste brand new products, to meet the Sabra chefs, and to ask the tough questions (exactly how many chickpeas are used each day? Top Secret!).

It's kind of like we're famous.

Knowing that I was the only member of the panel with a kosher bent, I viewed everything through the lens of kashrut, which made the entire experience interesting. Food was catered to the hotel Tuesday night for myself and one of the group leaders and to the Sabra Factory for Wednesday lunch and dinner to take to the airport. I ended up eating the delicious meal Tuesday before we went out to dinner, because I didn't want to face the awkward experience of the kosher Jew drinking only water and starving while everyone else ate. The waiter attempted to understand our dietary concerns ("That just means no pork, right?"), and even though he was from LA, he was pretty clueless. Luckily, with the powers of the bartendress and our waiter combined, I had a delicious alcoholic beverage that got me through the evening! The restaurant's set-up was beautiful, with an "open kitchen" that sort of creates a trusting sense of transparency.

Say hello to MaryDawn!
On Wednesday, with coffee in hand, we took off to the Sabra Factory, which was sort of out in the middle of nowhere on a beautiful Silver LEED Certified facility. What does this mean? Well, the facility is made with 20 percent recyclable materials, and they use the collected rainwater in the building for cooling -- they really don't waste, but they do reuse and recycle (did you know the hummus lid and bowl are recyclable?!). We spent most of the day being followed around by a great two-man film crew, and our fearless leader was Mike S., the head of Research and Development for Sabra, and Executive Research Chef MaryDawn also accompanied us along the journey.

After putting on a less-than-stylish outfit that included a factory jacket, a hairnet, some goggles, and a hardhat, we took off to the factory floor. Lucky for me, because I have glasses, I got to skip the goggle things, but I did find that wearing a tichel with a hairnet with a hardhat was, well, less than comfortable. I did notice there was one woman -- who I assumed was Muslim -- in the spice room wearing a head scarf with the hardhat, so I felt a sense of sisterhood!

The first step into official factory space was, of course, the garlic. The aroma of spices. Then? The 1 ton bags of chickpeas! They're kept in super bags, 2,000 pounds apiece! We snaked through hydration and washing stations, the garnish (you know, those pine nuts on top of the hummus) room, and got to watch live-action hummus making, and we even got to try the first-run goods off the line, before they get spiced, blended, and packaged. The color was very yellow and the texture much chunkier than the final product. We walked through the packaging area, watching how they transport the garnishes and hummus from place to place in these gigantic metal pods. After the factory, we went to the test kitchen area, where there were some fresh goods to sample (alas, believe it or not, the Sabra kitchen isn't kosher, even though the products are). Luckily, they busted out the two newest flavors of hummus fresh from the package, and we got to sample them: Buffalo Style and Basil Pesto hummus.

I didn't partake, but I plan on replicating the hummus-meets-eggplant heated-up recipe at home!

Now, I was really stoked about the prospect of Buffalo Style Hummus complete with celery and the taste of buffalo with ranch (even though it's parve), but I'll admit, it was the Basil Pesto Hummus that took my breathe away. I have hated pesto for as long as I can remember, but this new product from Sabra has me hooked. I want to put it in meatballs, and melt it on pasta, and ... you get the drift.

The other real winners of the trip were the new Greek Yogurt dips that Sabra has started producing. I honestly couldn't stop eating the Spinach and Artichoke dip. I figured that I could sit down and eat the entire container and not completely destroy my eating schedule -- it's that good for you (or, rather, not bad for you). These dips are dairy, and they have traditional hashgacha, but also are marked Chalav Stam, in case you're concerned. I really applaud Sabra for using Greek Yogurt in their dips, because they're the only ones out there making dips that are not based on sour cream. Bravo for a health-conscious company.

After testing out the new hummus flavors and the new dairy dips, we sampled the four new salsa flavors, as well as the two new guacamole flavors (I didn't partake, because, well, I've always hated guac!). The salsa has me beyond excited. It tasted fresh and traditional (as in, the kind of Mexican I'd get at the small mom-and-pop places run by people who spoke no English), and I can't wait to see the gigantic tubs of this stuff at the Big Box retailers!

Our kind hosts prepared some delicious nosh for the non-kosher keepers, including an amazing dessert that I can't wait to replicate once the recipe comes my way, and if you're lucky, I'll be sharing it with you, too! The recipe makes for "Chocolate Hummus." With coconut. And it looked amazing. If only I could have tried it! Agh. And I also got to meet -- but held back my excitement -- Colombe Jacobsen, whom you might remember as "The Cat" from the Mighty Ducks movies! Color me star-struck. She's one of the Sabra chefs, believe it or not.

The day ended with some outstanding schwag and a van ride to the airport, where we issued our goodbyes and went on our way. It was a whirlwind 24 hours, but it was totally worth the trip and time. Why? Well, I learned some interesting things.
  • Pumping hummus through pipes compromises its texture, so the factory uses gravity to its advantage, dropping the hummus from one layer of the factory to another!
  • Sabra Hummus is now officially gluten free!
  • Sabra has removed every preservative from its hummus except for one, which is considered standard in the industry, but the plan is to get rid of even that in the future! The folks at Sabra are very devoted to healthy, sensible choices.
  • Hummus isn't just for dipping. No, it's for cooking. The best example? Well, that delicious coconut dish up there: Toasted Coconut Topped Chocolate Hummus Cups! (Check out recipes here.)
  • The factory in Virginia produces only hummus, and it peaked at 60 tons of hummus in one 8-hour shift! Holy wow!
  • The Virginia location broke ground in 2009 and already has outgrown its breeches! That's how quickly they're growing, everyone.
  • By volume, the U.S. consumes more hummus than Israel, even though more households in Israel (by a huge margin) purchase the product. In the U.S., Sabra holds 10 percent of the hummus market, which is up from 7 percent at the beginning of 2010.
  • In a word: Sabra Hummus is growing. Are you on the Hummus Train?
The entire experience was enlightening. I've been on factory tours before, but only the beer and tea variety back in Colorado. Sabra opened their world to us, and I feel a greater connection to the hummus that we consume every Friday and Saturday for Shabbos. Now, my goal is to get these new products into all of the grocery stores in Teaneck -- come on! I've got the bug, I want my dip and hummus!

Also, stay tuned for more blog posts about Sabra, my trip, and, of course, giveaways. I have some schwag to pass along to one lucky reader. Could it be you? That depends. Until next time ...

Good lord my hair is long.